Sunday, May 19, 2013

There's no such thing as a short answer to "What Happened?"

(Note: What follows below is from a recent email to my former student dentist, Rakhee. It felt like the most eloquent summary I have come up with recently to explain how I have been feeling in the wake of my broken foot and on the verge of completing my dental work that she began. I know that that story will not just magically have a happy ending the day my last crown is put on, but that it is still, every day, being written. Real heaing requires more than just new teeth, as I have been trying to unravel and understand all along. The deeper I continue to walk or crutch into my own darkness while alone these past few months, the more I feel the reasons for my broken foot are very similar to those that led to my broken smile. I hope that sharing my own journey with you all will continue to help you to make such a journey yourselves, and that together we can all be stronger, healthier people who listen to, learn from, and help one another to find the light at the end of our tunnels. I think I can finally say, that I am almost there.)

Hi Rakhee!
I have wanted to write to you forever. Everyone gets so wrapped up in short text communication sometimes I feel like it is impossible to really communicate full, elaborate thoughts anymore. Certainly for ME, but, you know how I write! :-)
I think sometimes I think if I ever were to write a book, all the footnotes in it would be inside jokes for you or something. Like whenever I write a blog, it feels like there's still so much I didn't say, sometimes that you are one of the only people I feel would understand.
You and I may come from different worlds, and honestly I don't think either of us probably know what a day in the life of the other is really like, but I think one of those magical mysteries about life is how people can sometimes meet in the middle and transcend who they are and find common paths toward connections that can help lift each other up to new levels. Some of that might sound like hippie bullshit, but I still feel like this is the case for us, even if we so rarely chat and I haven't heard your voice in a year. You always cheer me up. You're like a magic knife that helps me to cut through my bullshit and depression some days to be more positive and productive and happy. I think some people might think I'm crazy or even "stalkery" or something for my tattoo, but the bottom line is, some of us just need more little "reminders" sometimes to get through our days, reminders even, to "smile." I have have all sorts of crazy up and down intense relationships in my life, with friends, family, girlfriends, whatever, but you are honestly one of the very few I can think of that my brain doesn't attach any negative feelings to. I can't think of you, truly let myself think of you and all we have been through together for a few minutes, and not smile. (Could you imagine if EVERYone could say that about their friends or family, let alone their DENTIST?) I hung a picture of us in my bathroom with some printed out things you've said that are helpful "affirmations" to me that I look at every time I feel lazy and don't want to brush my teeth. Maybe that is "crazy" to people who come over too, but it HELPS me.
I know that you read my blog, but we never really talked a lot about it, your hands were always in my mouth! Ha. Bottom line, there are reasons this happened to me. Everyone always asked me, student dentists included--drives me crazy--"what happened?" Like it is a simple answer. I have come to loathe that question. It's like a cashier asking "how are you?" and then getting confused or annoyed when you respond. LIFE happened! We all were dealt different hands and we all played them differently. I lost a bunch of hands. I'm finally trying to start WINNING. That's probably the best simple answer I could give!
What I'm getting at is, the most important realization I had about my teeth was that I let them get that way as a form of self-harm, hoping to get a reaction out of my parents and friends all those years. I didn't know how to be happy or healthy or fix anything, and that was the one thing I could control, always hoping someone would notice and help me deal with my teeth and the pain of my childhood that caused the problem. Every cavity was really like another time I was disappointed by those I just wanted love from. And you can fill those holes, but it doesn't mean that that disappointment won't still be lingering in there somewhere at the roots. Ha, did I just call my parents periodontal disease??
The past few years have been a whirlwind emotionally. My last relationship was confusing. I think honestly I am a few years ahead of her at learning how to face my fears and problems and be honest with myself and others and I think that was our downfall. So many people, more and more these days I am finding have no idea how to communicate, if they are even in touch with their real feelings at all. It's really tragic.
Even as "enlightened" as I still hide and deny things and push them aside when I don't feel I have the time to confront them. Honestly that is one of the reasons I bike and hike and camp so much, because nature helps me to focus and really commune with myself as well and process these things. Pain, confusion, whatever. I was really hurt the way things ended with after my break-up, I couldn't get the "closure" from her I'd wanted and I couldn't get the words out I wanted to say and I just felt "stuck." That affected a lot about my life in the months that followed.
The weekend of my accident it was originally a 4 day vacation I had planned for after when I was first told my dental work would be finished. That obviously, was CRAZY. Whenever that was really going to happen, I was saving my vacation days just to get away and be with myself and reflect on it all. That week like 900 dollars of my fancy hiking and biking clothes and gear got stolen off my bike and it kinda ruined my plans for a 4 day camping trip, which ultimately was also really to process everything that happened with my ex. Once again, I felt like I was avoiding it so as not to feel pain, always waiting for the right time, the right more comfortable environment. I cancelled my trip, spent a fortune on renting a car, went to Sedona for a day and came home mostly disappointed, instead of just biking still as planned but for a shortened trip. I have come to realize that I think so much hardship comes to me as a result of not listening to my heart's deepest yearning. I could have still had those 4 days away just with limited resources, instead I settled for short term gratifications, which ultimately failed. Not only did my teeth not get finished, my weekend sucked, and I was just tired of being lonely all the time. At the last minute I went out to that annual Phoenix Burn thing hoping to connect. I did feel like I had "risen from the ashes" a lot in the past few years and thought it was symbolic to jump the fire this year, as I had in the past, but I also didn't need to. It was a silly show-off thing that I'm sure I only did hoping for praise or connection, to be noticed by people for something after a lonely, depressing weekend.
I tell you these things, because I feel that they are all part of the same story. I may have come a long way, but I think the story of my broken foot is still very much connected to my broken smile which you are a part of. I want you to understand. As a friend and partner in all of this, but maybe also as a dentist. Something that I think is a problem and reason for a divide between patients and dentists is because some of them think like mechanics and see patients as broken cars that just need fixing. This does patients an injustice. I think it is grossly negligent and is part of why the health care industry in this country is so messed up to begin with. If prevention were as easy as just giving out a toothbrush there would be no dentists except in emergency rooms. So many dentists I see don't seem to have a clue how much a person's teeth affect every aspect of their being. Maybe they are in it for the money, Idunno, but it drives me crazy. This only makes it harder for them to relate to patients and patients to them.  If you go to see a dentist for the first time in 10 years and they ask you "what happened?" they simply don't want the answer "my parents didn't love me." "My girlfriend left me." etc. See also, obesity, drug addiction and all sorts of chronic health problems plaguing the country.
I am at a place where for the first time in 20 years where I may not ever be asked about my teeth, but I am still every day trying to unravel my past and understand the "what happened." There are days, even still $21,000 and 61 appointments later that I still don't always brush or floss, usually if I am feeling depressed or upset about something. Not all the time, don't worry. I just want to give perspective. You might very well know more about me than any other patient ever, and it's important to me to try my best to share with you, my own personal "words from the chair" like that book I gave you. Because I think it will only help to make you a better dentist and a more compassionate person. Though you certainly already are far above the curve in those departments. :-)
Breaking my foot reminded me so much of when my front tooth broke on my bike tour. I thought my life was fucking over. I spent that whole first month just feeling broken and lost and scared and uncertain of anything. My teeth felt trivial in comparison, like I would keep these stupid crooked plastic provisionals indefinitely JUST to be able to travel back in time and NOT jump that damn fire. But if not then, if not my foot, it would have just been something else, sooner or later. Suppressing things always seems to have a way to come back and bite you in the ass.
I am slowly accepting that this has happened to me, trying to be positive and have faith that I will be able to nurse and exercise my foot back to health in the coming months and do all the things I love again. Maybe it will always be broken, I don't know. But I hope that despite all of this, that finally I can learn from this experience so that I don't have to be. I am capable of moving on and getting past things, letting things go. I can learn from the past but not drive myself insane over things I can't change, and truly embrace the present moment.
I have spent the past few weeks writing letters to people from my past who I have felt there were unresolved feelings with in my heart. I had a talk with a friend recently about how people always feel like they need "closure" or they can't move on, "why can't they just say screw it, and forget those people and just get on with their lives and be okay that they may never hear from them?" I think for me personally, it's not always about them, but my own repression of feelings over and over that lead to patterns and negative habits that are hard to break. I carry some of these feelings and frustrations around with me all the time just like the secret of my teeth for years and it eats at me. Even if the other people may never write back or give you answers that you might hope for or resolve things, I think as a person so grounded in writing like I am that it is nonetheless helpful to ME to finally find that voice to get those feelings out and give them away so I don't have to carry the weight of such heavy words with me everywhere each day. I truly DO feel "lighter" when I get such thoughts out, even this email, though I feel there is nothing "unresolved" between you and I.
I actually wrote to my parents, forgiving them, and I think I am finally actually ready to mean it, and move on. I wrote to the first person I ever felt I was in love with but never told to let them know what they meant to me back then. I apologized to a friend I had a drunken argument with a year ago, inviting them to come back into my life. I told a former partner how much I would like it if we were to try to still be friends. Things that I have struggled with doing and asking in the past, because...Idunno, maybe I am afraid of the answers. But at least now I know I have said MY peace, gotten MY truth out of me, even if it may never be heard. No one can take that away from me, and I find it very vital to my own true healing, each letter laying another stone in the path toward my ability to smile again and be happy, find balance, find peace.
Thank you for listening to this really long message! I hope that it can also somehow help you in your life and practice, if only in its ability to offer insight into another human beings deepest feelings and struggles and motivations. I think I may actually edit a few things and post it in my blog. Sometimes writing to specific people helps to find a particular voice and conjure certain things out I've been wanting to say and there are certainly a lot of them in here that have been on my mind. You are certainly one of those people that it helps me to write to. 

I will spare you all the cheesy closing goodbyes and anecdotes. Yes, I write long letters. I am always up for new pen pals if you want to help keep the dying art of letter-writing alive. Thank you for reading :-)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

So, I haven't written in here in a really long time.

     It is hard to exactly pinpoint why that is. About a year ago when I last wrote I was in a pretty confusing and emotionally intense place. My student dentist who had been with me for 40 appointments and changed so much about my life was on the verge of graduation. I felt uncertain about what would come next, what the transition to new dentists would be like, if anyone else could ever fill her very big shoes that had endured and endeared through so many appointments with me. I was scared again for the first time since we began our journey together, wondering when I would ever finish, if I would be satisfied with the outcome, and sad that she would not be there to see it, to finish "her masterpiece" as I rightfully believed she deserved.
     That being said, I also was in a place, for once, where in general throughout my day, for the first time in 20 years, that I didn't really THINK about teeth most of the time. I was slowly learning to "let go," to let uninhibited smirks and smiles and laughs escape my mouth without such a strongly controlled and tense face always holding them back. Sometimes, for once, I was happy JUST TO NOT THINK ABOUT MY FUCKING TEETH ALL THE TIME, to not worry what anyone would think of me if they caught a glimpse of my open mouth in conversation, while chewing, etc. I still worried and always had questions and wondered when I would ever be finished with my treatment plan, but those feelings were mostly tied to "being at the dentist," whereas I was able to just enjoy the moment and not really think about them much, as I calmly continued to sock away every cent from work and just go about living my life when I wasn't at the dentist.
     I never meant for almost a year to pass between entries, but I think that fact is also a very telling fact about the extent of which I allowed thoughts of my teeth to always control my life. The more and more I found empowerment as the months went on and new teeth continued to be built and restored in my mouth, the easier it became to eat and the less I was in pain, the less and less I think I really WANTED to write in my blog. This "story" and my treatment and my blog for over a year was truly the focus of my life, but the closer I came to completing it, the less I wanted to really write or think about it and the more I wanted to just go about living my life, finally just trying to be happy and relearning to smile again. In retrospect now, I think that may have been a bit of a premature misjudgement.
     A lot has happened in my life since then, and I don't know if I will ever find the time to fill in all the blanks, but one thing has always remained certain throughout this journey to me. I said in the very beginning that I knew that if I had just won the lottery or something and managed to miraculously fix all my teeth instantly, that it never would have really healed the true and deep-seated "issues" in me that gave rise to this problem and all the ways I lived my life in the first place. I may very well have never come to the realization that my behavior was a form of self-harm,I may have never gazed so deeply into myself to try to truly figure out how to stop from carrying on these old habits into my new life with my new and improved teeth. It has been two and a half years now, and I have TRIED to do those things and it still is not always easy.
     I am going to try my best to "catch up" the parts of the story that I feel are truly integral to my growth through this experience and and worthy of including in the narrative. With my teeth slowly shifting away from being the main focus of my life, I ended up in my first "relationship" of sorts since this journey began, that was really interesting in comparison to those I had in the past before this journey. The past year of the actual dental process has been particularly slow compared to the beginning and also the most expensive. You may noticed that I have basically been PAYED IN FULL for my treatment plan ever since January of this year.

(The small remainder is for a nightguard when everything is finished, but since I didn't need to pay that to move forward with finishing my actual teeth I have held off.) It was great to finally have money again for a while! However, I have ended up poor again recently after breaking my foot a few months ago and being on medical leave from work. In the past several months, between trying to process "what went wrong" in my relationships and how my childhood issues and my teeth continue to affect who I am, and also being mostly alone and in bed for 2 months, I am trying to finally put the pieces all together of this confusing lifelong puzzle and finally heal and move forward with my life, a happier, more balanced and smiley person. Things are all becoming clearer as I realize more and more how it is all connected, and I even feel I can tie my broken foot to my continued inability to not always focus on myself or feel 100% comfortable alone. You have a lot of time to think about things when you can't walk, let alone hike and bike and do many of the things you love most!
     I am writing these words on the verge of what is tentatively my FINAL APPOINTMENT on June 17th where if all goes well, I will receive my last 5 crowns on my implants, including my implant-supported, fixed partial denture for my 3 front teeth, numbers 8-10, which have largely been what the entire suspense of this journey and my concern for a decade of my life has been about. "What will my front teeth ever look like again?" That little piece of porcelain and its zirconia guts will be the single most expensive thing I have ever owned of payed for in my life. It is a huge mindfuck waiting, always wondering what it will look like, what CAN it look like given the limitations of my mouth with its general asymmetry and bone loss, etc. I know that with this grand finale must come a certain level of acceptance and the ability to just be thankful and proud and feel "DONE" and just move on, but the Ego is a powerful force in allowing one to think otherwise. But I am trying!
     There are so many things about the past few years of my life that have turned out far more wonderful than I could've ever imagined all those years I lived in fear, and so many surprises good and bad. I am a firm believer that all things happen for a reason, and that life gives you the lessons that you need most to evolve and expand your consciousness, even if at the time you may not always be ready. I am learning to accept these lessons and be grateful and move forward, better than I ever could in the past, and it comes as no irony to me that my smile completion manages to also coincide with the time when I will also begin to learn to walk again on my freshly healed foot. Life always has a way of showing you what you take for granted, and finding those forgotten demons you keep locked away to tap you on the shoulder and remind you of how you aren't dealing with things you should be, if you are willing to listen. You can get mad at the world and blame everyone but yourself for your bad teeth or your broken foot or that your girlfriend broke up with you or countless other things, but when you truly accept responsibility for those things you may finally begin to see the role that YOU also play in them. I am working on this. It is a lifelong experience, and I am humbled and grateful that so many people have chosen to follow along with my progress. Thank you for reading, and I will try to write more soon.

Here are a few pictures from the past year. I think that you will agree, that though several of the teeth you can see in my smile are plastic provisionals, they are a profound improvement over the past partial denture, and certainly what I began with! Even when I smile without showing teeth, it still looks and feels much different.

Summer 2012 outside Macy's in Flagstaff

Winter 2013
Being silly on the swings in Miami, AZ October 2012

Getting my cast put on a few weeks after surgery from my shattered heel bone. April 2013

Most recent, laying in the grass in a rare green sanctuary-like house in Mesa, AZ, May 2013. This was the first time I really was able to spend in anything remotely resembling "nature" in two months since breaking my foot.